Building a Heritage City: Will Puducherry be next on the UNESCO list?
If Puducherry were human, its soul would be the Beach Road. Traffic is closed here between six in the evening and seven-thirty in the morning, and pedestrians claim the space. Locals in shorts or saris jog or stroll down, earphones plugged in, or in the company of friends, family or pets. White faces mingle with brown. Not all the Indians are Tamils – the original inhabitants of Puducherry – just as not all the foreigners are tourists. There are those who have come from across India and abroad, to make Puducherry their home for a few years, decades or generations. Come Friday, visitors – often from nearby Chennai or Bengaluru – add to the mix. This intermingling of cultures, experiences and skills, dating back centuries, gives Puducherry its identity, reflected in its cuisine, customs, language and especially its architecture. It also gives the Puducherry government the reason to seek a UNESCO heritage tag for the Union Territory (UT), or at least parts of it.
The preparation for the application to the international organisation for a ‘heritage city’ listing has already been initiated. Helping the government in achieving the task is the local chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). A team of representatives from the government and INTACH have also visited Ahmedabad, the old part of which is recognised as a heritage city by UNESCO, to study the work that went into getting this recognition.
“Puducherry is one of the most planned cities of India. That heritage has to be conserved,” says P Parthiban, secretary to government (tourism). “Our focus is on the ‘white town’, but there is also our own history to protect,” he says.
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Though many European traders – including the Portuguese and Dutch – visited Puducherry from the 16th century onwards, what remains today is mostly a relic of its French past. The British had razed Pondicherry to the ground when they gained control over it in 1761. When the French returned in 1763, they built what is known as the ‘boulevard town’ or old town. This is what the government now wants to promote as a heritage city.
A storm water canal separates what were, during the French colonisation, the Tamil and the French quarters – popularly referred to as the ‘black’ and ‘white’ towns respectively. Today, while locals simply refer to the old ‘black town’ as the Tamil side, the tag of ‘white town’ continues to be often used for what was the French area.
“It’s like its two different worlds,” says 49-year-old Paris resident Anne Marie, who is spending time learning Tamil in Pondicherry. For Devangi Ramakrishnan, an urban designer from Mumbai, who has made Pondicherry her home for the past few years, the ‘white town’ is the romanticisation of a colonial fantasy. “You go to Google and you type Pondicherry and what come up is ‘white town’. This is ridiculous. We must change this nomenclature.”
But locals say ‘white town’ is just a tourism gimmick. “Because the Tamil side is just like any other south Indian town,” explains one resident. Also Pondicherry, says another, is no stranger to spatial segregation. “On the Tamil side too, there were different lanes for people of different religions and castes,” she says.
Even today, many Tamils wouldn’t want to live in the French part. One of the things that holds them back is tradition. They visit the beach, own property here, work in the government offices, many of which are in the old French buildings, but return home to the Tamil part or even beyond, to the newer colonies that have sprung up outside the old boulevard city. Migrants from other parts who now call Pondicherry home, are more often residents of the French part. But there aren’t many of them either. Property prices are higher on the French side. The ‘white town’ is still for the ‘outsiders’, with colonialists having given way to tourists.
The two sides of the canal have starkly different characters. The Tamil side is busy, congested and much more modern. Time has changed it more than the ‘white town’. There are a handful of old Tamil houses, with their sitting-out area, wooden pillars and courtyards around which the rooms are built. But they are so scattered, lost even, among modern stand-alone houses, apartment blocks, hotels, restaurants and the busy bazaar, that it’s difficult to get a sense of an old town here.
In comparison, the French part is still quaint, with more old houses lining the streets . Developed along the beach and around the present Bharathi Park, the ‘white town’ is a mix of government buildings such as the legislative assembly and Governor’s Palace, the Notre-Dame-des-Anges Church, the old club (Cercle de Pondicherry), and institutions like the French Consulate, the Lycee Francais school and old houses. “But the real heritage of Pondicherry is not just the buildings, it’s also the way the town has been laid out, ” says Rafael Gastebois, a French conservation architect working on the government’s ‘smart city’ project, to help balance progress and better facilities for residents and tourists with heritage conservation.“Though popularly referred to as French architecture, the buildings in the French part, mostly follow the Creole style,” he says. There are local elements too – such as the Madras terrace flat roofs. Courtyard gardens, pillars, high windows, parapets, arched staircases and balconies on iron brackets complete the look. The entrance ways of the villas are deceptively simple, when one looks at the sprawling grandeur within.
Originally the buildings were either white - but that was too dazzling to the eye - or yellow and red, because those were the only two colours available then to mix into the limewash, explains Gastebois.
Many of the privately owned buildings in the French quarter have been turned into heritage hotels. But there are also new constructions – shops, bed-and-breakfasts – the inescapable frills of a once-secluded town finding its place on the tourist map.
Then and Now
Ninety-two-year-old retired judge, David Annoussamy, lives in a traditional old Tamil house on the erstwhile Indian side of Puducherry in a street still called Rue Porte. And he often answers his phone with a “Oui” (French for yes). Once upon a time he had a French passport. “When the French left in 1954, Pondicherrians had the opportunity to choose whether they wanted to retain their French passports or take Indian ones. I chose to take an Indian passport.” Most of those who continued to hold French passport, have migrated.
What remains today - as a relic of the past - is a smattering of spoken French, some old street names and structures, a handful of French institutes and the old colonial ball game of petanque. Pondicherry Cuisine - a blend of French and Tamil flavours, mostly common in Catholic Tamil families - also survives in some kitchens. But today more shops selling wood-fired pizzas and burgers are visible in boulevard town, than those offering French crepes or croissants. “Many years have passed since the French left; Pondicherry has been assimilated into India,” says Annoussamy.
It’s not just the French connect that’s fading. In 1910, nationalist-turned-spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo made Pondicherry his home. The Aurobindo Ashram was founded in 1926 and owns some of the old French buildings today (mostly coloured grey and white). Over the years the Ashram has drawn followers from across the country and world. But many of them now miss the quiet and peace that once characterised Pondicherry. “I still remember the ’70s and ’80s. There was no traffic. Everybody was on bicycles. There were only three-four cars in Pondicherry then,” says Saikat Bhattacharya, who works at the Alliance Francaise, Puduchery.
Part of the change is just the passage of time. The other is Pondicherry’s metamorphosis into a tourist hub. “One of the guidelines of the ‘smart city’ project is turning Pondicherry into a global tourist destination through heritage. But how can you promote heritage without taking into consideration the intangible heritage?” asks Nicolas Bautes, a French town planner, associated with the project. Gastebois agrees, “Pondicherry has a long tradition of link, trade exchange – this is intangible heritage that UNSCO loves.” One of the problems of Pondicherry, according to Ramakrishnan, is that there is very little scholarly research about its intangible heritage.
The annual Pondicherry Heritage Festival was started in 2015, in the aftermath of the collapse of the town hall or Marie, in 2014. The festival is organised by two citizen initiatives – People For Pondicherry’s Heritage and Pondycan – and INTACH, “Over the years we have invited many experts to talk about heritage maintenance,” explains Sunaina Mandeen, one of the organisers. The festival celebrates not just the architectural heritage, but also the cultural, spiritual and natural heritage of Puducherry. “Since there are people from all over the world here, there is local expertise in various art forms and traditional skills and we provide a platform to promote local talent and entrepreneurship at the festival,” explains Kakoli Banerjee, an organiser.
But as Ashok Panda, co-convenor of the Puducherry chapter of INTACH admits, generally, most of the conservation focus in Puducherry presently is on the built heritage. “Much of it is commercially fuelled.” Nearly 20 years ago, when one of Puducherry’s first heritage hotels opened, INTACH, which had helped restore the property, felt it had found the key to push conservation. “It got people interested in conservation,” says Panda. The organisation went on to work with the government in projects promoting Puducherry as a heritage destination. Today like many locals, Panda feels there are too many tourists in Puducherry. “The problem is not in the number, but in the quality of tourists coming in,” says 27-year-old Ananthi Velmurugan, a research scholar, who is documenting the reaction of boulevard town residents to the increased tourist inflow.
According to Parthiban, “from 2013 onwards, Puducherry has seen an annual increase of about 15 per cent in incoming tourists. Every year we see a tourist population of 15-16 lakhs.” Most of these, says Velmurugan, are domestic, drawn to Puducherry by its cheap liquor (because of low taxes). “Because of this, many residents are selling their properties and moving out of boulevard town. It is becoming an increasingly commercial place. We are losing the character of Puducherry, which is the real heritage of the place,” she says.
It’s the perception of the ‘French connect’ that probably makes many believe it to be a bit of a ‘foreign’ getaway within India. “It is a kind of freedom zone,” says Bhattacharya. “The local town (Tamil side) is quieter, because the whole world comes to the beach. Every day there are broken bottles everywhere,” he says.
The ‘Heritage City’ tag, if and when it happens (it’s a long process of application and screening), is expected to bring in more tourists. The Union Territory is also covered under the central government’s Swadesh Darshan Scheme to promote theme based tourist circuits. One of the circuits that Puducherry is a part of, is the heritage circuit. A budget of Rs 60 crores has been set aside for conservation of old buildings, improving pavements, putting up heritage lighting… Streets in the ‘white town’ have also got list placards giving a brief history of the place. Then there is the smart city project.
No doubt, all this will further boost the economy of the UT - bringing in business and creating more job opportunities in allied industries such as hospitality. But what the locals stand to lose perhaps, is their space in boulevard town, and especially Beach Road. On a Tuesday evening recently, Geetanjali Anand looked relaxed as she shared a dosa with her family, on the beach. “But we can’t come here on weekends anymore,” she says. “It’s too full of tourists.”